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What to do when your kids won’t stop arguing


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Zrinka Peters - published on 04/04/20

Most siblings will fight sometimes, but here are some tips for when it gets too much.

When I was a girl around 12 years old, growing up with three brothers, my mother would occasionally plan an event she called “Grievance Hour.” She would arrange a pleasant atmosphere in the living room, tidying up and setting out some nice snacks, and at the appointed time us kids would be summoned to take our seats on the couch. “Now,” she would say, “I want you each to say what is bothering you.” And that is just what we did. One by one, we took turns airing our grievances. We each talked about what annoyed us about our siblings. We talked about the unfairnesses, mistreatments, name-calling, rudenesses, and apparent character flaws of those sitting next to us. About who damaged whose CD (remember CDs?) or sports equipment or poster. About what hurt our feelings or made us angry.

My mother never did explain much of the ‘why’ behind Grievance Hour. But I can see now that she was probably either doing some side reading on child psychology, or she was just ahead of her time. I’ve been fascinated lately, reading child psychologists Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s classic Siblings Without Rivalry, and see echoes of their chapter “Not till the bad feelings come out” [can the good ones come in] in my mother’s method.

My own family is no stranger to sibling rivalry. Among our six kids (five daughters and one son) there is hardly a day that goes by without some kind of fight — either verbal or physical. Our four-year-old has recently taken to pinching her 7-year old brother — hard — when she’s upset. Verbal sparring between the older girls is an activity that is so frequent it seems to run on autopilot. And now, with all of us home in quarantine for an indefinite amount of time, there are more opportunities than ever for the kids to argue.

But Siblings without Rivalry reminded me of mom’s ‘Grievance Hour’ and the effect it had on us. My brothers and I now get along fine and do not harbor the deep resentments that often simmer under the surface of adult sibling relationships. Looking back, I think our Grievance Hours had something to do with that. They gave us permission to air our dirty laundry in a safe and nurturing environment. They gave us the honor of having our negative thoughts and feelings – however ridiculous they may have sounded to my mother’s ears at the time — acknowledged and validated.

That concept, as it turns out, is at the forefront of  Faber and Mazlish’s advice to parents — that it’s important to give brothers and sisters the chance to have their negative feelings about their siblings acknowledged. That doesn’t mean harmful actions are ever OK — but allowing a child to vent their frustration and showing them how to handle their angry feelings in an acceptable way is important. So, when one sibling is yelling at another, instead of shouting “Knock it off!” in the kids’ general direction, simply acknowledging the frustration by saying “You sound furious!” or “You wish he’d ask before using your things” can help diffuse the anger. Then the child can be helped to express his or her frustration with words, such as, “Tell him with words how angry you are. Tell him ‘I don’t want you to use my skateboard without my permission.’”

The authors share several other helpful points:

Don’t compare siblings

Open comparisons, whether positive — “You’re so much neater than your sister!” — or negative — “Why can’t you be organized like your sister?” — both serve to foster unhealthy competition. Instead of comparing one child to another, point out only the problematic behavior. Say something like “I see a brand new sweater on the floor. That’s a problem. That sweater belongs in the closet.”

Equality is overrated

My daughter’s 5th-grade teacher had a sign on her classroom door that said “Fairness doesn’t mean giving everyone the same thing. Fairness means giving each person what they need to succeed.” And as it turns out, the authors tell us, kids don’t buy the ‘equality’ talk anyways. “To be loved equally, is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely — for one’s own special self — is to be loved as much as we need to be loved.” So, rather than “I love you both the same,” love each child individually — “You are the only ‘you’ in the whole wide world. No one could ever take your place.”

Don’t lock your children into roles

Instead of reinforcing negative ideas that our kids may already believe about themselves (“I’m no good at math!”), we can help them become open to the possibility of growth. Instead of “Johnny, did you hide your brother’s ball? Why are you always so mean?” we can simply say “Your brother wants his ball back.” We can also remind our kids that bad behavior (or grades) doesn’t define them and that they are capable of great good. No child should be burdened with the label of being a problem child.   

And, when siblings fight, Faber and Mazlish offer some helpful guidelines:

For normal low-level squabbling — ignore it.

When a situation is heating up and adult intervention might be helpful:

a)  Acknowledge their anger. “You both sound mad at each other!” 

b) Reflect each child’s point of view — “So, Mike, you want to listen to music while you read, and Sarah, you want it quiet so that you can focus on your homework.”

c) Describe the problem with respect. “That’s a tough one, with only one work area!” 

d) Express confidence in the children’s ability to find a solution. “I have confidence that you two can work out a solution that’s fair to both of you.” 

e) Leave the room.

When the situation is dangerous and adult intervention is necessary. 

a) Describe what you see. “I see two very angry kids who are ready to hurt each other!” 

b) Separate the children. “It’s not safe to be together. It’s not OK to hurt someone. We must have a cooling-off period. Quick, you to your room, and you to yours!”

Most siblings will fight at times. There may be more opportunity for fighting during these uneasy days of being together at home for long stretches of time. But this time can also be an unexpected blessing. Let’s use these days to strengthen our family bonds, and grow together as families and communities.


Read more:
Finding hope when you’re parenting a pre-teen


Read more:
When siblings fight, should parents intervene?

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